Young male adults who exercise vigorously could reduce their risk of developing epilepsy later in life, according to a study published online in the journal Neurology.

Researchers from Sweden analyzed the fitness of 1.17 million Swedish military servicemen, who were required to carry out cycle tests that measured their cardiovascular fitness when they enlisted for service at the age of 18.

The participants were then assessed for the prevalence of epilepsy for an average of 25 years. During this period, 6,796 men were diagnosed with the condition.

Epilepsy is a brain disorder that causes recurring seizures as a result of abnormal electrical activity in the brain. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 2 million people in the US currently suffer from the disease.

The findings of this study revealed that young men who had a high level of fitness were 79% less likely to develop epilepsy later in life, compared with young men with low fitness levels.

Additionally, compared with young men who had medium fitness levels, the high-fitness-level group was 36% less likely to develop epilepsy.

The results were broken down, according to fitness levels, showing the proportion of men who developed epilepsy:

  • Of men with high fitness levels, 0.48% (2,381 out of 496,973) developed epilepsy
  • Of men with medium fitness levels, 0.62% (3,913 out of 629,876) developed epilepsy
  • Of men with low fitness levels, 1.09% (502 of 46,230) developed epilepsy.

The researchers say that when other factors were taken into consideration, such as history of traumatic brain injury, stroke, diabetes or genetic factors, the results only lessoned by a fraction.

Elinor Ben-Menachem, of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and an associate member of the American Academy of Neurology, says:

There are a host of ways exercise has been shown to benefit the brain and reduce the risk of brain diseases. This is the first study in humans to show that exercise may also reduce the risk of epilepsy, which can be disabling and life-threatening.”

She adds:

“Exercise may affect epilepsy risk in two ways. It may protect the brain and create stronger brain reserve, or it may simply be that people who are fit early in life tend to also be fit later in life, which in turn affects disease risk.”

Previous studies have shown the benefits of exercise on other neurological disorders. Recent research from the University of Maryland School of Public Health suggests that exercising for 150 minutes could be the best treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

A study from Princeton University suggests that exercise reorganizes the human brain to become more resilient to stress.